Sunday, September 2, 2012

"Mirror, Mirror, On the Wall..."

You’re all probably familiar with the old German fairy tale, Schneewittchen und die sieben Zwerge, or Snow White and the 7 Dwarfs, collected and popularized by the Brothers Grimm in 1812, and the subject of many other narrative versions, films, TV shows, musical compositions, and even video games. It depicts a Queen who, while sewing at her window, pricks her finger with the needle, spilling three drops of blood onto the snow-laden ebony window frame. Looking upon them, the Queen expresses, aloud, the wish that she might have a daughter with skin as white as snow, with lips as red as blood, and with hair as black as ebony. And she does have such a daughter, made-to-order, whom she and her husband name Snow White. Unfortunately, the Queen dies soon after. The King remarries. His new Queen is very beautiful, but also very, very vain. She daily consults her magical mirror, asking: “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” To which the mirror invariably replies: “You, my Queen, are fairest of all.” Predictably, Snow White grows to become more beautiful than the Queen, which the mirror isn’t shy about admitting, which sets up a long and interesting conflict between the two women.

St. James, in today’s second reading uses a mirror analogy, noting that, if any are followers of Jesus, i.e., “hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like.” (1:23-24) Then, in an inspired statement, he says that “those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act -- they will be blessed in their doing...” (1:25)

Adele Stiles Resmer, Assistant to the bishop & Minister for Community & Mission in the Grand Canyon Synod, ELCA, suggests that, as we gaze at ourselves in the mirror of today’s Scripture readings, we try “ hold these two realities together: the gifts of God that create the people of God; and the responses of God's people to these wonderful, life-giving gifts that continue to shape them into the people of God.” 


In the first reading Moses instructs the people to “give heed observe” the statutes and ordinances of the Almighty, which you and I recognize as the 10 Commandments, literally, the Ten Words, in Hebrew, or the Law. He gives three good reasons for this: 1) “so that [they] may live” as God’s people throughout successive generations, 2) that they may enter and occupy the Promised Land and thus become God’s faithful and compassionate people, and 3) that they may, both in their relationship with God and one another, become a wise and discerning community: a model for the surrounding nations. “For what other great nation has a God so near to it as the Lord our God is?...And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law?...” (4:7-8) 

For the Hebrew the word for law, torah meant “precept, statute, law”, but not in the strictly juridical sense in which we use those terms. The root of torah is yara, meaning to flow (as water); to lay, throw or shoot (as an arrow); to point out or teach (as if by aiming the finger). It has a relational flavor, which characterizes the Covenant by which God formed a people of God’s own, in which the people pledged to be faithful to the “statutes and ordinances” in response to God’s pledge of continual gracious and loving care of them in every way. The keeping of the Covenant on God’s part, of course, was never in doubt. The people , however, periodically needed to gauge how they were doing by looking into the mirror of God’s Covenant, for “this will show your wisdom and discernment”, as Moses says, or not, as was demonstrated over and over in their long history!

James, in the Epistle, identifies “every generous act of giving,...every perfect gift”, the chief of which was the Covenant, the Law, as coming “from above, coming down from the [unchangeable] Father of lights”. (1:17) He says that we are “a kind of first fruits”, first of the Mosaic Covenant of love, and then of the Law of Christ, in Jesus who is the Word of truth, “the implanted word that has the power to save our souls”. (1:21) That, of course, depends on our willingness to let ourselves be shaped by that gift from God in order to “produce God’s righteousness”, even as Moses cautioned that it did so for the people of Israel. If we learn from Jesus the Master how to, in James’ words, “be quick to listen, slow to speak”, rather than to simply drift through our daily living by becoming forgetful hearers when we look into the mirror, then we’ll come to recognize what James calls “the perfect law, the law of liberty”, or as Paul says in Romans, “the freedom of the glory of the children of God”. (8:21) The image is of the community of God’s people running amok, like little children, in the reign of God with all the exuberance of God’s joy and love and righteousness!


The writer of Deuteronomy indicates what should be the first response of the people of God to God’s gift of the Covenant: “You must neither add anything...nor take away anything from it, but keep the commandments of the Lord...You must observe them diligently...” (4:2 & 6) The “keeping” or “doing” of the Law is spelled out in a way of living which helps shape the people as a community of love in relation to God and to each other: care and watchfulness; not forgetting, not treating casually what they’ve come to know; passing their knowledge on to future generations. (Dt 4:9) 

Psalm 15 reminds the people that only those can be in genuine relation to the Most High who do the right thing and speak the heart’s truth (v. 2); who “do no evil to their friends” (v. 3); who stand by their commitments, even if it means personal inconvenience, hurt or loss (v. 4); who are honest and refuse to take advantage of others (v. 5)

James considers a community to be truly grateful for and responsive to being shaped by God’s law of love when it refrains from anger and from sordid and rank behavior, when it bridles the tongue, when it cares for the disadvantaged, especially those most vulnerable, such as orphans and widows, and when it keeps itself “unstained by the world”. 

Mark, in his Gospel (7:1-8; 14-15), relates a scene which graphically ties together all the elements we’ve just been considering. Central to it are “the [Jerusalem] Pharisees and some of the scribes”. Their name in Hebrew is perusim = the separate or separated ones, the separators, i.e., the distinguishers and expositors of the Law. They were laymen, in contrast the Sadducees who were a priestly party. Heirs of the priest and scribe, Ezra, mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures, rather than of the prophets, the Pharisees viewed Judaism as a religion, as well as a theocracy, centered upon the Law as handed down by Moses, and they interpreted the Law’s obligations most severely, mainly as prescriptions to be kept, rather than a way of living. In addition to God’s Law, they clung to oral traditions which, they said, came down through a chain of elders which they could trace all the way back to Moses. The Pharisees saw these oral traditions as a sort of fence around the Law, protecting it from any violations, which could be assured only by the exact observance, to the letter, of these human traditions.     

The Pharisees’ closest alliance was with the scribes: the teachers and interpreters of the Law. They disregarded and opposed the “people of the land”, what you might call the “Jewish 99%”, because they believed them to be ignorant folks who neither knew nor cared about the finer points of the Mosaic Law. Outside the New Testament, we only know of the Pharisees through two sources: 1) the Jewish historian, Josephus, and 2) from a few comments in the Talmud, the collection of writings by the Jewish rabbis which was itself strongly Pharisaic in origin. Interestingly, the Talmud singles out the same faults in the Pharisees as Jesus does in the Christian Scriptures! Jesus, of course, came as God’s Holy One, the Word of truth, to save all humankind, not just the select guardians of the Mosaic Law. He especially identified with the “people of the land”. Understandably, he and the Pharisees are at loggerheads from the very beginning of the four Gospel accounts. 

In the Gospel a band of Pharisees and scribes come up from Jerusalem to Gennesaret, on the northwest coast of the Sea of Galilee, to harass Jesus. The issue this time is the fact that some of Jesus’ disciples, whether through bad upbringing, bad hygiene, or just forgetfulness, “were eating with defiled hands... without washing them”. Mark makes it abundantly clear that, indeed, it was the Jewish custom to thoroughly wash the hands before mealtimes, as well any food from the market, and various “cups, pots, and bronze kettles”, etc.,  but he adds “...thus observing the tradition of the elders”, not the Mosaic Law. By this time in the history of God’s people, it’s clear that the Pharisees, by their own human interpretations, had both added to and taken away things from the Law, contrary to what Moses insists on in the Deuteronomy reading. Jesus calls them on this in no uncertain terms, although it’s unfortunate that the RCL chose not to include perhaps the most telling verses, 9-13, in the reading. Jesus’ pointed reply to his critics, in effect, forces them to look into the mirror of the Mosaic Covenant, God’s gift of love, whose purpose was to enable the people to live wisely and well, and thus to be shaped into a loving, serving community. What they saw in that mirror was the exact opposite: “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition”, Jesus says. In the omitted vv. 9-13, he continues: “For Moses said: ‘Give due right to your father and mother’; and: ‘Let him who speaks rudely to his father or mother be put to death.’ But you say: ‘If a man says to his father or his mother: Whatever I owe you is Corban, which means ‘gift to God’, then you no longer let him do anything for his father or mother, making void the word of God through that tradition which you hand down. And you do many other things of such a nature as this...

Jesus also flings in their face the teaching of God’s prophet, Isaiah: “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.” “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the most righteous of us all?” “Certainly not you Pharisees”, Jesus would say. 

I don’t believe that even Jesus considered the Pharisees all bad. According to the standards which they’d inherited down through thousands of generations, I’m guessing that they had glimpses of true Covenant religion, that they were more mistaken than evil. Yet, in reality, they caused a lot of harm for a lot of people. And Jesus expected them to be accountable.

It’s a timely warning for all us well-intentioned religious folks, who, just as the Pharisees, often look into our own mirrors and see something other than “the perfect law of liberty”. We make assumptions; we draw conclusions for ourselves, sincerely perhaps, and often try to pass them off as God’s law, rather than our own selfish willfulness. Sometimes we get so wrapped up in the externals of religion, the “packaging”, that we neglect what really counts: the inner disposition and attitude of humble faith and gratitude for God’s gifts of love, and the selflessness and openness of letting God shape us, as God wants, into a community of dedicated caring and compassion.

I hope that you and I, when we look into our “mirror, mirror, on the wall”, will see reflected, instead, “the Lord our God” who is so near to us that you and I will actually resemble that God. And our mirror might even say to us: “You, O people of God, are the luckiest, the most blessed ones of all!” 

Who knows? Perhaps the mirror might look something like this one: 

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